A German prison has put inmates to work designing and marketing tongue-in-cheek fashion products. The work gives them the self-confidence they need to stay out of trouble after they're released.
Buttons produced "inside" for the "outside"
Glasmoor, located just north of Hamburg, is an "open prison" and looks more like a farm and is surrounded by forests and fields. One of the buildings on the compound used to be a farm. Its door is usually wide open, welcoming visitors to the headquarters of "Santa Fu" - a brand of products that uses the prison both as their motto and their logo.
"The people have to make the decision to stay here every day - without prison walls, each prisoner still must decide to stay put and not try to escape," said prison director Angela Biermann. The idea is that the lack of fences and barbed wire contributes to a positive atmosphere.
The door to the workshop in Glasmoor is always open
Inside the former barn, tables are scattered around the room and the walls are adorned with posters. A cage is located on the left side, but it's not a cell: It's a storage space for Santa Fu products. There's an office to the right - walled in with windows, behind which a plump man with a moustache sits He sports a dark polo shirt with the word "Judiciary," printed in white lettering.
The guard and the bad boys
Wolfgang Muecke is the guard in the workshop. The 55-year-old has a cozy, jovial manner about him - as though he were really an actor playing the role of constable in a children's film, in which he jokingly threatens the knaves with his fist. The knaves, in this case, are six men in the shop, who are printing t-shirts and pin-on buttons with prison jargon.
"Since I'm doing time myself, it would be a little weird wearing the brand," said Patrick, one of the workers. "I do think it's funny, though."
Glasmoor is home to the warehouse and shipping department of the Santa Fu products. The name of the brand actually stems from the "Santu Fu" nickname given to Fuhlsbuettel prison, also located near Hamburg.
Prisoners at both the Glasmoor and Fuhlsbuettel facilities work together with several advertising and marketing agencies to decide on which products to sell and which designs and sayings they should have on them.
Santa Fu products have meanwhile become cult objects. Everything from t-shirts to games like "Memory" to Zippo lighters - the limited edition items are all printed with jargon relating to life in prison, all done in an authentic - yet tongue-in-cheek - style.
"I gave some people the t-shirts with the words "life sentence/life imprisonment" printed on them as gifts - on the night before they got married," said Muecke with a proud look on his face. "The little 'Santa Fu' label printed on each t-shirt is now almost as popular as that little green crocodile of one of our competitor's."
The only difference, he notes, is that competitors do not manufacture their products in prisons.
Wolfgang Muecke is proud of the products
Gallows humor is a life-saver
However successful the brand may be, one could still wonder whether all the poking fun - like the t-shirts with "life imprisonment" printed on them - could be insulting to the prisoners.
"Don't forget that the products, and all the sayings on them, were developed by the prisoners themselves," said prison director Biermann. "No one told them they have to print 'just released' or 'life imprisonment' on the shirts."
Henrik works on one of the presses that print the jail jargon on pin-on buttons. He thinks the humor found in the products is liberating: "There's a bit of gallows humor involved. It kind of helps us forget that we're imprisoned."
The atmosphere is relaxed in the workshop, with the men often cracking jokes. But, guard Wolfgang Muecke doesn't want people to think that life in prison is a walk in the park.
"Imprisonment is always tough," he said. "It's the worst thing imaginable - at least here in Germany."
T-shirts are printed by hand
While working in the shop does help make the time in prison easier, it also gives the prisoners a sense of purpose, especially since part of the products' proceeds go to the "Weisser Ring," an organization that helps victims of crime. It also fosters a sense of confidence among the prisoners - that what they are producing is recognized and in demand "outside."
Ultimately, it helps prepare inmates for a life outside the prison and for a future without crime.
Mehmed, who prints t-shirts in the workshop, can attest to how the recognition has boosted his confidence. He was permitted to go on vacation outside of the prison and while walking down the street he saw some Santu Fu t-shirts in a shop window.
"I realized that some of that was my work, or from my colleagues," he says. "I was proud to get that public recognition."
T-shirts are packed into plastic and shipped to stores
Author: Dirk Schneider (als)
Editor: Kate Bowen